Saturday, December 13, 2008


I maintain a YouTube channel, called "SheridanStopMo". I put up various exercises, and add some educational text to go along, to help people practice stop motion skills.

It's a bit like what I cover in the stop motion animation course I teach at Sheridan. There is a LOT of stop motion on YouTube. I think in part because it lets average (ie, non professional animators or film makers) imagine fantastical worlds and stories, and then make them in their own homes, in miniature. In other words- it's DAMN fun.

But what often makes typical YouTube stop motion film less than easy on the eyes is that few people know much about the principles of animation. So it's a nice thing (I think) that if someone watches and studies the clips I'm putting on YouTube through this channel, they will have better quality animation in their next "home made epic" stop motion film.

It always strikes me as such a shame that someone would spend so much time (and love) making sets and puppets, but such little time achieving effective animation. I think a lot of people just get that initial satisfaction from just seeing the puppet move on screen, and are satisfied with that (or worse, think that's all they are capable of, because they aren't "real" animators).

The makers of "home made epics" CAN learn to do better animation, but it means putting all the nice sets and fancy puppets aside, and focusing on the basics. But it's worth it to achieve more effective animation!

A final note on puppet making. Some of the puppets in the clips are "fancier" aluminum armature puppets. They are pricier, and harder to make. But the puppet in the clip below (and in another clip that has the puppet stomping on a clay ball before being attacked by another) is SIMPLE, CHEAP, AND EASY TO ANIMATE EFFECTIVELY.

It's made from "plumber's epoxy," available at Home Depot in the plumbing section, and armature wire (1/16", from any art store). That's it. It's so light and small (it stands about 5" high) that it stands up with just some sticky tack on the feet. So you can animate it on any desk, with a desk lamp for consistent light, a webcam, and whatever free/cheap software you want to use to grab frames. I really don't think it gets much easier than this.

This little puppet costs about $1, takes about 30 minutes to make (max), and can REALLY be animated. It's a perfect way to practice your stop motion, without getting into more complex and pricey puppet making techniques.

Now go make a puppet!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

More Beginnings

I haven't been updating this blog lately, and I have a semi-valid reason. With only so much free time on my hands (working full-time, and managing a six month old), I can only do so much. And rather than blogging, I've been working on a new stop motion film idea.

I have been extremely cautious about posting much about it, for a few reasons. The first is that, as with anything that is fledgling, one treats it with TLC. So to start blabbing about it through this blog would be, well, poor parenting (if one thinks of a film project as being a child, of sorts).

Another reason I've hesitated to write much about the film and its progress is that I didn't originally want this blog to become "merely" a production blog. It seems to me that a production blog (and I write this with great respect for the many, many students at school who use their blogs to show off their developing films) can do more harm than good to a project. One can get so busy updating the blog with new "behind the scenes" images, tests, etc for a project, that the production blog actually BECOMES the project. And the time spent on updating and polishing a blog to show off the work in progress could be better spent just working away on the project itself!

I am also torn by the idea of an artist revealing everything up his or her sleeve, before the "trick" (in this case, the film) is even done. Filmmakers (and I think storytellers in general) have an undeniable streak of showmanship in them even if, as animators, we are far from the actual spotlight, as we toil away at our desks or computers or stages. And what kind of showmanship is it to reveal your grand piece, bit by bit, to the world, before it's even done?

Hitting the audience with the unexpected is a very powerful tool for a filmmaker to employ. So much of the pleasure of watching a film can (should?) be in the active process of putting the pieces together, bit by bit, as those bits are revealed to the audience, shot by shot. If the audience has already seen every scrap of a film BEFORE it's on the screen as a whole, what a loss of possible impact this is. If the audience knows the whole film already, what fun is watching the film itself? And of course, animation is ripe for this, as the film is "done" in the form of an animatic long before the actual film is finished.

Talk about a "spoiler".

On the other hand (and it's a big other hand, size XXXL), allowing a blog to become a project development space is:

a) very educational for showing how a project is put together, stage by stage. And I am an educator, by profession and by nature.

b) potentially useful for gaining feedback from readers on posted items. I say potentially because I don't get many comments, and not all advice is good advice.

c) potentially useful as it allows the filmmaker to take a step back a bit from the project, and get some critical distance. By putting the pieces of the film "out there," it can offer new angles and facets that the filmmaker might never had seen had it not been made public.

d) gratifying to the inherently insecure lump inside my heart, in that it allows me to say "See? I'm really making something! I really am an artist, no foolin'!"

With all this in mind, here's a lip sync test I recently did. The character is me (see an earlier post that has a test puppet head, that is basically the same design). Here though, the drawing is to scale (in that the drawing size is 1:1 with the size the puppet will be), whereas the posted puppet head is smaller than it should be. As I said, that was a test head for materials, paints, and so on.

This scale drawing of the character, that includes not just the head, but the whole character, in costume, (which maybe I'll post another time) allows me to decide if it's big enough to get my hands on to easily animate, but also not TOO big so as to cause other production problems.

The mouth shapes are also to scale, and this test is to see how the shapes I've created will work once I sculpted them (along with the head). It's obviously much easier to refine the shapes while they are still on paper than after I've sculpted them.

The test turned out fine. As with any replacement mouth animation, there's no blending of the shapes, so it invariably feels rather "blunt," but that's stop motion. The "applied" feel is part of what I love about the tactile, hands-on quality of puppet animation.

A stop mo tip: always, always, always get your characters designed to scale with what the puppet will be, as soon as you possibly can.

From that stage you will already start to feel what it will be like to "lay hands" once it's three dimensional, AND from that drawing you can start envisioning your camera angles (just use a cut-out of the scale drawing in front of your lens to see how it will look) sets, props... that scale drawing means you now have an instant "stand in" for your actual puppet, and you can really start moving on other aspects of production.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Famous Puppet Death Scenes

I was recently lucky enough to catch this stage production, put on by The Old Trout Puppet Workshop troupe. If you go to this link, be sure to view their gallery of puppets, and read the reviews page to see how much praise is being heaped on this show, and why.

The premise of the show is very simple, and very clever. There is a narrator character (a puppet, of course) who explains that the evening will consist of the best puppet death scenes, taken from the history of puppet theatre.

What follows is exactly that. But what's so exciting about this premise is that it leaves so much to the audience's imagination. What is depicted is truly ONLY the death scenes, from some 22 imagined plays. What led to these deaths? How did the characters in each of these plays arrive at this critical turning point in the narrative?

Since there are 22 death scenes depicted, and none lasting more than a few moments, the audience can't actually take the time to dream up what the surrounding narratives might be. But this only adds to the complexity of the show. It's a premise that truly draws up the audience's active imagination, and as a result is incredibly engaging, just from a narrative perspective.

Then, of course, there is the puppet work. As an animator (and one who moves puppets frame by frame), I would say the puppet work at its worst was well done, and at its best was truly moving and inspiring. The climax of the show, in which the narrator "attempts" the ultimate puppet death scene, is fantastic. It is a fantastic bit of puppet theatre, but I would argue fantastic theatre, period.

Without giving too much away (as this scene is so special and touching, I don't want to reveal too much in case you see it), the show's climax does exactly what top-notch puppet work can do. The climax moves the audience from thinking of the puppet as a piece of wood and wire, into thinking the puppet is truly, TRULY real. And by "real" I certainly don't mean "CGI-realism-I-can't-believe-it's-not-human-better-than-
" real. The puppet is clearly NOT a living, breathing creature- we're talking about a roughly sculpted puppet, with no moving mouth, about 2 feet high, yellow, that has the puppeteers right on stage WITH him, controlling his moves. The image above is the puppet in question. CGI reality, he is not.

I mean there is real emotion involved. We care for that piece of wood and metal as if it were a living, breathing human. The effectiveness of the climax is a testament to the skills and HEART of the puppeteers, writers, and director.

This show moved me enormously. As it ended, I felt a mixture of joy and sadness. Joy because I had been lucky enough to catch this live performance (can't rent THIS baby at Blockbuster). But sad because something this touching doesn't appear everyday. Nor once a week, month, year... It's such a rare thing, to be truly moved by anything in life, other than one's own "real world" joys and sorrows.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen this show. And I hope you can see it too (if you haven't already).

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Masking Tape Zombie

Just in case you thought that all I care about is cute little stop motion kitties (from my posting of a few weeks ago), I thought I'd post this bit of loveliness. Halloween IS just around the corner, so I'll use that as a further excuse. I'll also blame a life-long and apparently never-ending love for monsters and monster design.

Anyway, this whole fella is made of green masking tape (aka "painter's tape"), on top of a wire armature, that you can see posed in the above picture. He's climbing out of the grave, hence the pose, and the half body aspect. And yes, that's a Wind In The Willows dvd case he's perched on. What can I say, my tastes are varied.

Anyway, I've used masking tape before, basically to "bulk out" trees and such for set pieces. It paints up nicely, and is easy/cheap to work with, so I thought I'd give it a go on something a little more specific, and detailed. Get to know the medium a bit, if you will. It's always interesting to play with materials that aren't typically used for art, as neat things can happen when you colour outside the lines...

I'm not sure if I'll actually finish this particular piece, as it's really just a test for a "life size" effort that I'll throw in our garden on Halloween night, with some spooky lighting. I just wanted to test the tape approach to see how detailed I could get things.

Of course, this little guy wouldn't animate (the tape is a bit fragile, and would cave in as soon as you'd grab it in order to animate it), but I'm sure there's some crazy way to make a stop mo puppet with masking tape.

Below are a few more pics. The in-focus one reveals the green tape, as it peeks through in places, which gives the thing a sort of "rotting, glow-in-the-dark-from-the-inside, Mario Bava" sort of vibe as a base. In this picture you can also how the bits of applied tape lends the face a patched, barely-held-together quality, that suits the "zombie" look pretty well. I saved this technique, which is just basically tearing very tiny pieces of tape into rough squares and sticking them on, till the very end, since the look it gave only matters on the surface level. On lower levels, I just bulked up into the main shapes as I went.

The out of focus image is my fave. It's basically the same framing and lighting as the one above it, but it goes to show what selective focus can do to an image. The out of focus pic does not look like the subject is about 3 inches high, and made of tape and paint. For my money, it looks pretty damn alive (or undead, as the case may be). No Photoshop involved, just in-camera manipulation.

Happy pre-Halloween...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Beginning Of...Something

In case you ever need to contact the authorities regarding any of my online conduct, you can use this image for the police bulletin. It's essentially a caricature of myself, right down to the forehead wrinkles (sigh).

This puppet head is simply the result of playing around with various materials, as I work towards something of a design sense for what someday will hopefully be another short film.

I'm going for something that is fairly realistic in style, but at the same time more cartoony (exaggerated) than my last film, The Magic Projector. I want more freedom, in terms of design style and animation style, to play. I'd like things to be a bit looser, more energetic. In short, I want the process of development and the final piece to be fun. Not frivolous, mind you (who would want to describe something they might work several years on as "frivolous"), but fun. As a full-time teacher and very full-time dad, there's no way I'll stick with an indie project if it isn't fun.

Regarding the puppet head pictured: it's Super Sculpey, with an base coat of automotive primer, followed by various coats of acrylic paints, then finished with a matte clear coat. The trickiest thing about using these particular materials for a puppet head is trying to get a final product that not only looks good but can stand up to the rigors of animation.

By that, I mean: the mouth is also Super Sculpey, and is held on by a touch of sticky tac. The eyeballs are clay, that I can "roll" around as need be. The eyelids are clay. The eyebrows are clay. All of these applied (and over time, sticky) items take a toll on the paint job. And if the paint isn't solidly adhered to the puppet head, the animated clay will eventually wear off the paint, or become smeared in to the point of having to seriously re-clean and then repaint.

This combo of a solid head with animatable features is a tried and true design process for puppet heads. You'll see it followed in a lot of features, TV, and indie films. It allows the head to maintain volume and mass and proportion frame by frame, while the clay features allow varied expressions. Of course, there is a limit to expression since the head is solid and can't be stretched/squashed, but hey- welcome to puppet animation.

Stop motion is very much about tests (at least it is for me). Tests give you the confidence to proceed with confidence. And after working commercially when tests weren't always possible because of production schedules, working independently now means I can test all I want (cause it's my dime, and it's my time).

So this puppet head is a test for materials, and for visual style. Until I had a sculpted, essentially finished head, I didn't really have a character design. For me, it was the process of actually sculpting the head (with a few sketches as rough guides) that "revealed" the character (and the design principles that will probably lead the project onward).

The glasses are floral wire, by the way.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Komaneko-The Curious Cat

Stop motion? Check.

Cute little kitty? Check.

Self-reflexive storyline that examines the process of stop motion animation? Check.

Japanese? Check.

What more do you want? Komaneko is a series of animated shorts about a cat and her efforts at making a stop motion film. At times her puppets behave as though they are truly puppets, in that they wait for Komaneko to bring them to life. At other times, they are alive under their own power. Of course, the whole show is being animated by a human animator, and this layering of puppets animating puppets who aren't actually puppets but are characters in their own right gives this otherwise simple (and touching) children's show some real complexity.

This show is great in all ways, and I think (from what I could find out) there's a feature film that has just been made?

I've embedded only episode 2 for a reason. There is a wonderful moment for all animators (stop motion or otherwise, but it's especially juicy for stop mo people) in the beginning of the episode. Komaneko has her set all made, her puppets are ready, she is lit, the camera is set up... she is poised to record her first frame of animation. And what does she do?

She stops what she's doing, closes her eyes... and imagines.

As a stop motion animator, I like to think she's seeing her first shot in her mind's eye, from first frame to last, feeling all of the movements and visualizing where and what her puppet is going to do. This moment of inner reflection, of breathing deep and bringing the shot-to-be to the front of the mind through visualization is essential to successful stop motion.

Or maybe she's just thinking about catnip, who knows.

This episode goes on to explore many of the headaches/nightmares that are an inherient part of the stop motion. And the joys, too.

I'd recommend anyone who wants to seriously attempt a stop motion film to watch all these episodes. This show is great training!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Cowboy, Indian, and Horse

There's really no one way to define a puppet, nor how it can be used in puppet animation.

You can use very carefully designed and crafted puppets that are super slick (and super expensive), as was the case with The Corpse Bride (for example).

Or you can go in the complete opposite direction, and use pre-fabricated toys that are completely incapable of articulation but, with effort, can still get you wonderful results. And that's the direction Cowboy, Indian, and Horse goes for, big time. I've only linked to one episode on Atom Films site, but there are many more there to enjoy beyond this one.

As the potentially politically incorrect title suggests this show, on its surface, doesn't seem to really care too much about anything. On first glance it's mindless, silly, poorly crafted, and feels as though it was whipped off by 6th graders. That first impression is completely calculated and intentional, of course.

Upon re-viewing, (as it's hard to watch any episode just once because of how much fun they are), there is clearly heaps of attention paid to the project, especially in the realm of timing.

What do you focus on, as an animator, if your puppet is a moulded piece of plastic that is completely incapable of moving any body parts? You focus on timing. Anything that can be animated can be timed for an effective performance. And this show proves it.

The pleasure of watching this show also proves that puppets don't have to cost thousands of dollars or required crews of 20 people to fabricate them. If you don't have talented people animating those puppets, it won't matter how much money and technical wizardry you used to create them, the performances will still be bland and/or lifeless and/or unconvincing.

The puppets in Cowboy, Indian, and Horse prove that careful animation efforts (even if those efforts are to create "bad" animation for the purpose of getting laughs) can make the most unrealistic of puppets "live" as characters. If you know what you are doing as an animator, and have a clear intent and the skill to realize it on the screen, anything can be brought to life and given character.

This show is shot in Belgium (those kooky Belgians, it all started with their waffles), but is produced by Aardman. While giving a talk at the NFB theatre in Toronto recently, Helen Brunsdon (head of short film development at Aardman) told the audience that if a project feels like it could have come from within Aardman, it's worth backing even if it's produced elsewhere. Hats off to Aardman for having the guts to put out a show like Cowboy, Indian, and Horse while at the same time creating their ultra-polished feature film efforts.

Aardman has the maturity at its executive level to recognize that quality animation (and storytelling) has many different looks.

And it has the business savvy to capitalize on that same fact.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


By Jeffrey Paull

My ‘50s teen-aged world was a newly
peacetime world of corporate culture, mass
entertainment, status consciousness, the TV sitcom
with laugh track, the advertisers’ invention of
teen-agers as a separate market, and the end of polio
and the Hollywood studio system.

‘50s culture, at its sanctimonious worst, gave us uniformity, stereotyped symbols of men’s and women’s possible roles, hypo-cracy, consumerism, a false sense of freedom of choice, and a self-satisfied smugness as a nation that dismissed women, other nations and, as we called African Americans back then, Negros.

And if it’s a movie, you can’t use the word
“pregnant”. (!)

I didn’t know that this middle class culture I moved through puberty in was anything other than the way things were meant to be. Like one sun in the sky, that’s all there ever was. This middle-class culture determined how I was supposed to deal with the world, but it didn’t determine how I experienced the world.

No wonder there arrived in our lives, the artists and writers and publishers of MAD magazine. No longer a comic book, MAD spoke to middle class white teen boys by humorously puncturing and deflating the self-important corporate and status-seeking parts of our lives. It gave us a way that we teens could question and mock the pushy, dopey (but catchy) ads, our enchantment with “our own” culture, and the everyday irritations of school, parents, and siblings. It ridiculed what we had no power over, and the goody-goody (sexless) expectations that attempted to quench our God-given hormones.

Only later would we understand that the silences, repressions, and hidden gaps in our lives came about because people were afraid to have ideas that were “different” or sensual. “Different” because they might be accused of being “pinkos”, “fellow travelers”, “dupes”, or Communists. “Sensual” because Americans have always sustained a Puritanical streak, and the anarchic energy of sex would have made hash of the simplistic ‘50s myths. So, of course and anyway, sexuality and sensuality oozed through the slick surfaces of our lives like blood through a bandage.

MAD wasn’t just funny-funny, like I Love Lucy or Jack Benny, it was funny in ways that mattered, that were attached to the powerfully convincing and overweening culture that surrounded us. MAD gave us a version of The Outsider’s point of view, and with its humour, gave us kids a way to talk to each other. It was an early clue to a new direction.

Other early clues to that new direction came from the Beat poets, Bridget Bardot’s naked tush, Elvis’s thrusts & Rock&Roll, '50s stand-up (Lenny Bruce and others) – Playwrite Lillian Hellman, song satirist Tom Lherer (he a Harvard - HARVARD! - mathematician!), Playboy magazine, Bettie Page, tranquillizers, and, eventually, the so-called '60s.

MAD taught us that if you used humour, you could shake off some of the oppressivenes of being a teenager living in a culture that wished to be as simplistic and sexless as an early TV sitcom. Like the local Hamburger Heaven, it was an island of temporary respite in a world that saw teenagers as what they weren’t: paper dolls that advertisers and anxious status-seeking parents wanted us to be.

MAD was a way of laughing and finding community rather than complaining. Which we did at other times.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Hedgehog in the Fog: Characterization

In an earlier entry, I wrote about Barnaby being a special comic strip in part because of its modest, unassuming nature. One of my favourite animated films shares this quality. It's Yuri Norstein's The Hedgehog in the Fog (1975).

Watching this film (or rewatching it) will probably make the follow posting a little more rewarding.

As with any wonderful work of art, there's a number of ways to approach it. But for now (although I might very well return to this film for another posting), I just want to talk about its use of characterization.

Two things happen very quickly in this film, in terms of character. One, we are charmed by the hedgehog. This occurs in part because of the design of the character (he looks like a ball of harmless fluff), but more importantly it occurs because of the how the character is acted. When we first see the hedgehog, he is marching along with great determination. Within a few seconds, in this same shot, he pauses, looks up for a moment, considers the heavens... then continues along on his industrious way. In this tiny bit of animation, (and within seconds of being introduced to this character), the audience has been shown that although he may be well-intentioned, this little creature is easily distracted. He can be swayed from his goal, if only momentarily. He is, quite simply, curious about the world around him. The revealing of these traits implies several things: he has a sense of adventure, he perhaps is inclined to falling into a bit of trouble now and then, and he is fallible, in that he is not capable of driving himself unerringly to whatever he desires (ala Superman, which is why Superman is so boring). This little guy might stumble along the way. He is, if not an underdog, someone we would certainly root for in a conflict. We are on his side. In short, we are charmed.

The other important character consideration that is nailed very quickly grows out of the first. Now that we are charmed by this character, it is much easier for us, if called upon, to willingly align ourselves with him on whatever adventures are about to occur.

This aligning with the hedgehog on our part begins to form something strong as we begin to like him (which happens very quickly), and is further deepened as he is unwittingly stalked by the owl. We can see that the owl is about to get the hedgehog, but the hedgehog has no idea. This puts us in a position of wanting to protect the hedgehog. We want to save him from the threat, but can't. When the threat passes (the owl becomes distracted by its own echo down the well), our desire to protect the hedgehog remains. It doesn't disappear just because the immediate threat of the owl has subsided. The bond between us and the hedgehog has thus been strengthened. What finally and utterly connects us with the hedgehog is the next scene, which finds the camera moving through the bushes in a "hedgehog cam" series of shots. We are literally seeing as if we are the hedgehog. And as we all know from our film studies classes, direct pov shots can dramatically increase the audience's sense of being one with the character whose eyes we are seeing through. This pov technique ends quickly, but its effect remains. We are now deeply connected with the hedgehog. His adventures are our adventures. We share his moments of wonder, of fear, of discovery, of self-doubt, of resignation, and ultimately of contentment.

I think this intense connection between character and audience is partly what makes this film so powerful and magical. Every time the hedgehog discovers the tree, and looks up into its towering branches, I am filled with awe (much as I'm sure our little hedgehog is).

There's much more I could talk about in terms of character in this film, but the last thing I want to point out is the final scene, in which bear and hedgehog are united. Bear happily (and rather dim-wittedly) recites the details of their nightly visits, details we already know about: they will burn juniper branches for the fire, they will sit in their chairs and count the stars. But for hedgehog, something has changed now. He has been through the fog, he has seen the white horse and has wondered about it. He has met bats and owls and snails, and even a hunter's dog. He has seen a giant tree, and his has floated down the river on Someone's back. Hedgehog has changed. He has grown, from his adventures. And this change is made all the more evident by the lack of change that bear exhibits.

What I love about this bit of character development is that the film ends without us knowing what, if any, effect his time in the fog will have on hedgehog. Hedgehog is happy to be back with bear, and he wonders about the horse, and how she is doing in the fog. The world of structure and order has been re-established... but the mystery introduced still remains, and is not only acknowledged but heralded.

Hedgehog can never be the same again, not after seeing the horse. He has changed because he has been touched by the magic in the fog.

And so have we.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Jeffrey Paull is a life-long student and teacher of images, both
static and moving. His insights will appear on this blog upon
, and we'll all be the wiser for it, I think. The second part
of this piece will be published next Wednesday.

I discovered MAD magazine just about when I got to
jr. high - 7th grade -1952. This article describes a
bit of the culture back then, that made us kids need
MAD Magazine.

MAD magazine didn’t just happen to happen. The artists,
writers, and publisher who transformed it from a comic
book into a magazine of satire and parody had histories
that led them to think in ways they did. Their history
overlaps my history, which is why I didn’t just love MAD
magazine, I, and millions of other kids my age needed
MAD magazine. It was a light at the end of a tunnel, an
umbrella during a miserable rain. It gave as much
pleasure as waking up on Saturday morning thinking
it’s only Friday, and then realizing . . .

But that ‘50s culture was a reaction to the earlier
unstable and unreliable world my parents generation
had lived their lives in.

So my story of MAD magazine begins by going back in
time to the unstable and unreliable world of my parents
to help explain why ‘50s culture was as it was.

My parents grew up in a world that seemed filled with
misery. Their parents escaped to the USA because of
pogroms in Poland and Russia. And on a larger scale . . .

- In 1914-18: WWI caused 20 million people to die.

-In 1918-20: The Spanish flu killed 25 million more
people around the world.

- From 1929-36: The Great Depression: about 27% of
Canadians couldn’t find jobs. There was no social
assistance. Nothing.

- From 1931-33: The Great Drought meant that very
little would grow over vast areas of North America,
and a plague of grasshoppers ate most of what was left.
For a sense of the scale, in Alberta alone 47,000 farmers
are driven off the land. In Saskatchewan, farmers’ income
dropped 72%

- From 1942-46: WWII and the Nazis killed 60 million more

- The Unites States, at war with Japan, dropped two atomic
bombs– “Little Boy” & “Fat Man”- on the cities of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, killing about 220,000 people, mostly civilians.

On the bright side, women were found to be quite capable of
working “men’s”jobs in factories, Penicillin was developed,
and Preston Sturges’ classy comedies were poking fun at American

Before I was of school age, I remember air raid drills and blackouts
during WWII, andthe neighbourhood air raid warden making sure all our
lights were truly out. Myparents, Aunt Evelyn and my grandmother waited
in the blackness for the “all clear” siren.

The war ended as I went to Grade 1, and my awareness of the world began
to extend beyond our house and my street. All I ever knew was peacetime
prosperity and people who looked forward, and never ever talked about
“back then”. This American optimism, however, hardened into a rigid code
of living that became The (Ugh!) ‘50s!, just as I approached my teenagery.

Dismal combo.

Part 2 will appear next Wednesday.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Royal de Luxe

From my first memories of puppets "coming alive" (probably the hand puppets Casey and Finnegan on CBC Television's Mr. Dress Up, and/or the hand puppets Jerome and Rusty of The Friendly Giant, which also aired on CBC), to my own efforts as a professional stop motion animator, to my teaching of the newly minted stop motion animation class at Sheridan, puppets represent something very complex for me.

I know it has something to do with the powerful and undeniable reality that something lifeless, something we know is nothing more that cloth, metal, clay, or plastic (or any number of other materials, of course), can suddenly come alive (either in a live performance as is the case with hand puppets or marionettes, or with the aid of motion picture apparatus, as is the case with stop motion). Puppets coming alive is as close to real magic as I've known so far.

Having my baby was wonderous, but that's something very natural. A puppet is something very unnatural, which is part of its almost supernatural attraction.

This "power of the puppet" also has something to do with the emotional connection between the audience and the puppet that follows that intense instant when the lifeless becomes living. A performance through a puppet can be as moving as any performed by a living actor on stage or screen. In some ways, I personally feel there's even a greater opportunity for an emotional connection with puppet performances. And I think it's partly because our logical mind knows the puppet is not alive, but our emotional mind wants the puppet to be alive. And as the emotional mind beats down the logical mind (if only for the length of the given performance), our hearts are able to be truly child-like again.

And anything that helps beat down the logical mind is a worthy area to dedicate oneself to.

Royal de Luxe is a French street performance troupe that specializes in the emotional doing battle with the logical, via big puppets. And by big, I mean huge. Recently the troupe, led by Jean Luc Courcoult, mounted a piece called The Sultan's Elephant. It features a very large elephant, and a very large little girl. They have taken the show throughout the world, including London (where the video clips below were shot). I've never had the pleasure of seeing them live. But I hope to, one day.

I think these clips move quite closely to heart of this idea of the emotional mind beating out the logical mind. The design and execution of the puppet performances make no effort to hide the mechanics. In fact, the mechanics are very much an explicit part of the designs and performances.

I find as I watch the clips, I shift constantly between seeing the puppets as living things (an elephant, and a girl), and seeing the puppets as miracles of engineering and mechanics. My logical mind and emotional mind do some pretty serious tussling. And it's an extremely invigorating experience.

I can only imagine the impact, live.

There a many clips online, but I've embedded a few that are very strong. This first one features a mix of the giant girl and the elephant:

While this clip features only the elephant. The video allows the entire puppet to move through the frame, and you can see the entire complexity of the creature:

It only makes sense to give the last word to the magician who is responsible for these wonderful creations. In speaking of one of his earlier show, Courcoult told Jean-Christophe Planche:

"I have seen adults crying as the giant leaves. They have obviously lived other things, sometimes difficult, and yet this makes them cry. I don't believe they are crying because he is leaving but because of the loss of their imagination. Over several days, they have dreamt as adults and now it's finished. Most adults have difficulty dreaming. When you are a grown-up, you weigh things up, you don't dream."
- Le Cahiers du Charnel Number 19 April 2005

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Edision and Leo- An Historic Moment

I'm very excited to see that Neil Burns' film Edison and Leo
is the opening film for the Canada First program for this year's Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 3-14. This film marks an historic moment in the medium of stop motion animation in Canada: it is our first stop motion animated feature length film.

In a sense, this marks a sort of "arrival" upon the scene for the medium in this country. South of the border, and in Europe and the UK, we've seen numerous stop motion feature length projects (Nightmare Before Christmas, James And The Giant Peach, Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, the upcoming Coraline), but until this film's release, Canada has "only" produced shorts, TV series work, and TV specials. Canada produces some wonderful stop motion work (which of course I'll make every effort to profile on this blog), but a feature is, well... a feature.

A feature is a big budget endevour (I understand the film had a budget of $10 million, which buys a whole lot of puppet, trust me). And a project could only get that money if investors sincerely believed that they'd make that money back (and more, of course) through sales and broadcast. In other words, there's serious money to be made on stop motion in Canada. If there's money to made on something, there will be more of it.

What this film's existence also means is that a production model has now been established for feature work. It's one thing to short an indie short, in terms of complexity of production. Then it's something else to shoot a major TV series. Then, there's feature work. Once one feature has been shot in this medium, a template now exists for work flow in terms of pre-production, production, and post (not to mention promotion, distribution, and sales). What worked? What didn't? How can it be tweaked? And regardless of how buggy the flow might have been (which I actually know nothing about, so it might have been flawless) it happened. It got done, and it is out the door. That accomplishment brings with it a certain momentum. It's been done once, it flowed through a pipe-line. And that means it can happen again.

As far as a stop motion feature signaling that our nation has "arrived" in terms of crew abilities, Canada has been "feature ready" for years. We've got no shortage of artists and animators that can easily handle the demands of making something for the "big screen," so no worries there.

I'm sure the film will look gorgeous. And I'm sure it will have some wonderful character-based animation and gorgeous technical animation. But to a degree, all it takes to make something look nice is getting enough money to pay the right people to do what they do (using the proper facilities and equipment). What I really hope for is that the story is there. A feature-length story, if it sags, can sag big. And no amount of beautiful sets, props, lighting, music, puppets, and animation can cover for that.

What's encouraging is that the film's written (primarily) by George Toles, who has written scripts for a lot of Guy Maddin's films. This suggests certain adjectives when considering what the story might be like: mad-capped, frenzied, very unexpected, strangely funny, oddly tender. I suppose what I hope for is a certain amount of madness and oddity that is still somehow both character-based and driven. Considering one attribute of the main character is that he somehow hears through his teeth (darn those childhood accidents), it would seem the off-centredness is there. I just hope it also has heart, and that it makes me care about the characters.

If the story is wonderful, this film could do very well indeed. If it's less than wonderful? Well it's still time to celebrate for stop motion in Canada, for all the reason above and more. We'll see when it premieres and the reviews start rolling in.

Finally, I'm excited because of who is directing this historic film- Neil Burns. I've had the pleasure of working with Neil on a stop mo TV series a few years back. As with any production, it was a bit like trench warfare- keep your head down, do your job well, try to not get blown up. Neil was a bastion of calmness and good nature. He's an extremely talented, creative, and funny human being. And, I'm happy to report, he's a very nice human being as well.

Without allowing this posting to decay into that ever-beckoning vortex known as "cynicism," I can honestly say that it's not always the nice human beings that seem to get ahead in media production. It does, at times, seem that it's the very people who treat others unfairly by taking advantage of them or giving them the "Sure, but what have you done for me lately?" routine, that get ahead. This can become very discouraging, as the years go by and the jerks keep rising. Seeing bad behaviour rewarded doesn't particularly fill one with hope for mankind... nor for the world of media production.

Neil Burns is a nice person. And it's incredibly rewarding to see a nice person helming such an important project. Win-win.

You go, Neil!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

My Heart Is Pure

I might as well get this sort of thing out of the way immediately.

On this blog, I will be using images and video clips that I do not hold the rights too. I will be doing this liberally, I imagine, either posting them on this site, or linking to them somewhere else. As the Wild West nature of the internet continues, I probably don’t even need to explain or justify or discuss my use of these sorts of images and clips. It’s like jaywalking, or wrestling gorillas while wearing cowboy boots. Every body's doing it, right?

But personally, as someone who does (upon occasion) actual make a work of “art” (is animation “art”?), and wants to get PAID for making that work of art, I really need to explain where I stand on this topic, so I can sleep at night, and so you don’t call your lawyer (I’m talking to you, Steven Spielberg).

First, anything I write about will be to shed light or insights upon a topic. Take my earlier Barnaby entry, for example. It’s my hope that by writing about Barnaby, it will lead more people to seek out the strip, which might lead to a publisher actually reprinting the strip. And that’s good for Barnaby (and whomever has financial stakes in the property). What about a piece I write that does not speak favourably of a topic? I still feel that even by writing something critical about a flaw in “something” will still lead readers to check out that “something,” so they can decide if they agree with me. Again, there’s no such thing as bad press. And any negative postings will be thoroughly backed up by carefully considered evidence.

I won't post an image or video, or link to an image or video that is hosted somewhere else if, in preparing that posting, I can verify that the artist or rights holder in question does not want their work posted or linked to. And if that artist or rights holder wants me to take something down, I will do it in a heartbeat.

And of course, if I'm profiling a local or indie artist that I think needs exposure, I will certainly credit the hell out of the work in question.

All this perhaps seemingly pointless hand-writing mumbo-jumbo stems from my own efforts in the current digital domain to ensure, to the best of my abilities, that I get paid for my animation. It's a wonderful thing that someone can post one my films (not that there's many to post), and the world can watch it. I can then be seen by literally millions of viewers, and that can generate any type of positive professional contacts and relationships.

But what if I didn't post the film online? This has happened to me recently, and when I contacted the website (that claims to SHARE its revenue with artists, 50-50) to tell them that I didn't post my own film and as a result am getting absolutely NO money from the deal, I received absolute silence in return. No traditional, "brick and mortar" shop could get away with this, but online it's happening all over the place. That being said, the film has still been viewed several thousands of times, and all the credits are intact, so hey- great exposure, right? But oh yeah, what about that money I'm owed?

As it happens, this film now has a "real" distributor, so let them (the distributor) be the bad cop and make a fuss. Because since they now hold the rights to my film, it's theirs to generate money with, and if anyone else is showing it, they are infringing on the distributor's chance to make themselves (and me) money. Also, I can only imagine the distributor has a lawyer or two at its disposal (which is one or two more than I have on hand).

I like it when others player bad cop for me. It comes from having a lot of big brothers growing up on the occasionally hostile playground.

Last point to make me sleep better? I'm not making a cent off this blog, and thus am not making money off the hard work of other artists.

What if I land a big juicy book deal out of this blog in a year's time? Will I share the proceeds with all the artists whose work has helped make this blog wonderful?

At that point, you'll have to speak to the very expensive lawyer that I will have acquired, mere moments after inking said deal.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Barnaby- The Sly Little Comic Strip

Barnaby was primarily a daily comic strip, created by Crockett Johnson (who also created the extremely famous children's book, Harold and The Purple Crayon). Barnaby ran from 1942 till approximately 1946, when Johnson turned the strip over to other artists.

The strip revolved around an unassuming little boy named Barnaby Baxter and his fairy godfather, Mr. O’Malley. Long before Bart Simpson coined "Don't have a cow," Mr. O'Malley had his own catch phrase, in the form of “Cushlamochree!” (which is hard to pronounce but a lot of fun to see when printed in a comic strip). Mr. O'Malley was essentially a friendly version of W.C. Fields (with fairy wings), and was a master of self-delusion. Charmingly, Mr. O'Malley always thought he had everything under control, but in fact he only made situations more complicated and messy. And it was often out of that personality trait that the conflicts (and comedy) grew.

Additional characters included Barnaby’s parents who never seemed to be able to see Mr. O’Malley, a fact that was always nicely played for is comic potential, and which leaves me wondering what influence this might have had on Bill Watterson when he developed his world for Calvin and Hobbes. And there was Gus The Ghost, who was very timid and easily scared. He also wore glasses, and fancied himself a writer (yes, a ghost writer).

As you might assume from a strip with a ghost character, the stories were often spooky, autumnal, and a bit mysterious. But they were gently so. Story lines would run for several strips, and involved surprisingly engaging plots of criminal intrigue, mysterious goings-on, strange dark figures who lurked in the shadows… all surrounded by slyly subtle humor, richly layered characters, honest tenderness… and silence.

Aren’t all comic strips silent? Of course, but Barnaby in particular. It might have been due to the strip's dialogue-heavy quality, which made it feel like a written story that just happened to have pictures. Perhaps it was the super-tight, conservative visual style Johnson employed, in which there was little movement perceived between panels. It might have been both facets, working together. But for a strip that contained so much silly, rambunctious adventure, it’s remarkable how it played out in such a quiet fashion. For me, there’s no other strip that I’ve come across that’s like Barnaby, in that it actually seems to define itself, at least in part, by quietness.

Typesetting as opposed to hand-done lettering was another distinctive facet of this strip. In his book Encyclopedia of Comic Art, Maurice Horn states that Johnson used typesetting because it would allow him to cram more words into his strip (I wonder if Johnson would entirely agree with that if he were alive today). The more words you use, the more story you can potentially tell. But comics are a visual language on a very primal level. When words appear in a strip, they possess a visual quality above and beyond the meaning derived from the actual words. In other words (no pun intended), Barnaby had a very distinctive look, a particular visual appeal, simply because the lettering looked different. The typesetting, in my opinion, lent the strip a formal quality which to my young eyes signified “grown up”. It meant this strip needed to be taken more seriously than others. This was no Garfield. This strip meant business.

But of course, the content was very silly indeed. And the resulting contrast between visual style and content (brought about through the use of typesetting) lent Barnaby a dynamic tension between its look and its content. This, much like its use of silence, helped mark the strip as unique.

Then there was the wonderfully balanced tone of the strip. It was so gentle, so perfectly innocent, that even when the characters were “hot on the trail” of what, for all they knew, might turn out to be a cold-blooded murderer, the reader never worried. The reader always knew that in the end it would turn out not to be a murderer, but an ice cream salesman who got lost in the woods. That’s a storyline I’ve just made up, by the way. But it’s fairly Barnaby-esque, trust me. It makes a lot of sense that in Encyclopedia of Comic Art, Horn suggests that some of Johnson’s biggest influences were the films of Frank Capra. There’s a gentle silliness shared by the films and the strip, a silliness that both entertains and maintains respect for the audience’s intelligence.

I’m OK that Barnaby isn’t around anymore as a current strip. I don’t think it could exist in this era, and there’s nothing inherently “wrong” about that fact. The world changes, and in the end it actually serves to make this strip more prized, more distinctive. But what I really do hope for is that someone will soon reprint the strips. The version I knew was published from Ballantine in the mid 1980s (pictured above, which I read when I was about twelve, for you math majors that want to know how old I am). These reprints are hard to come by, and are usually quite expensive. The time is ripe for someone to collect the original Barnaby strips and bring them into print again. And they (whomever these saints might be) must promote the collection appropriately, so that as many people as possible can be touched by this special little comic world.

In the meantime, what are Barnaby fans to do? We can start by praising the efforts of Philip Nel, who has built the go-to place online for Crockett Johnson info, and is working on a definitive biography of the man. In a recent email exchange with Philip, he told me he’s aiming to have it written by the end of this year, if all goes well. Maybe we can hope to see it published in 2009? Hopefully with lots of illustrations, and maybe even a Barnaby strip or two? Or twenty? The bio is actually a double bio, as Johnson’s wife, Ruth Krauss, was a powerhouse storyteller in her own right, having published numerous children’s books, including The Growing Story (1947). It’s a beautiful story about a little boy who can’t wait to grow bigger. It's set amidst the changing seasons on a farm. I chose this particular story to read to my own child, while he was still in his Mommy's tummy.

Start them early, I say.

I sincerely hope you can get your hands on some Barnaby comics. With luck, you’ll come across them on a crisp autumn afternoon, and you can sit under a nice tree amidst the fallen leaves, and enjoy. Say hi to Gus The Ghost for me, if you see him.

But say it quietly. Remember, he frightens easily.